moonlighting

Moonlighting

moonlightingIn December 2013, the journalist Yasmin Nair wrote a response on her blog to the magazine Jacobin killing one of her articles, entitled “On Writers as Scabs, Whores, and Interns: The Jacobin Problem.” The aim of the piece was to expose the hypocrisy of small internet publications like Jacobin that espouse radical views while failing to pay their writers a decent wage. “You would think that the left media would, at the very least, adhere to basic standards of pay,” Nair laments, not unreasonably. She then goes on to find a couple of convenient scapegoats: “The problem with publishing today, even and perhaps especially on the Left, is that it is increasingly becoming crowded with people with enough money to ‘do’ writing as a hobby … and that most publishers think of paying writers out of a general sense of noblesse oblige.” She particularly objects to the idea that “writing is some kind of special snowflake activity,” and suggests that

the phrase [“labor of love”] needs to be excised from all languages, and every person who uses it should be made to pay a $50 fine, every single time. If they happen to be a publisher or editor, the fine should go up to $500. If you’re a working writer like me … you should be allowed to pummel everyone who uses the phrase with a very large, iron hammer, with impunity.

Nair’s rhetoric in this post is clearly heartfelt but also a little tongue-in-cheek; the post feels like an attempt to blow off steam after a frustrating editing experience and, in the process, point out some of the larger structural problems of the radical publishing world. But a more recent post, written in semi-response to Corey Robin (himself responding to a widely circulated op-ed by Nicholas Kristof about the value of public intellectuals), is more polemical still, and broadens her critique to include websites devoted to literature and culture as well as those advancing an explicitly lefist agenda:

[T]hose who write for free or very little simply because they can afford to are scabs. This would include not just academics with tenured or tenure-track positions, but adjuncts, professionals (like paid activists and organisers), as well as just about anybody who writes for places like Guernica, The Huffington Post, open Democracy.net, and The Rumpus.

I’m not going to touch Nair’s calculatedly outrageous use of the term “scab.” As others have pointed out (including Chris Sherman, in a Facebook comment Nair reproduces below her essay), the term “scab” historically means someone who breaks a strike, not someone who is willing to work for a lower wage, but I’ll leave it to labor historians and activists to draw the larger consequences of Nair’s misuse of this word for her argument. I’ll also leave to observers of the academic labor market her lumping together of tenured and tenure-track professors with struggling adjuncts, which seems far too blunt to constitute a useful class analysis.

And, for the record, I find myself agreeing with many points in Nair’s unfailingly provocative essay. For instance, her generalization of the critique of internships and the casualization of labor to writing is shrewd and timely, I think. “The system of free writing has created a caste system, with those who can afford to work for free doing so while those who can’t struggling to pay the bills and often giving up,” she writes; and, to the objection that many novice writers start out writing for free and eventually graduate to paid jobs, she answers: “[I]t’s not their free writing and ‘exposure’ that got them their jobs; it’s their ability to survive without having to depend on writing for a livelihood that guaranteed they could continue to write for nothing.” These are important points, and easy ones to forget or to blind oneself to.

Cover-Page1But I do want to object to a few of Nair’s historical and political claims. One is that the situation she describes — in which journalists and freelancers who make a living from writing are resentful of academics and other professionals who only moonlight — is somehow a product of something called neoliberalism (which she defines as “the rationalisation of capitalist exploitation under the rubric of ‘choice’”). But similar concerns were raised frequently throughout the golden age of the American little magazine (roughly 1900-1960), which was, by anybody’s standard, well before the rise of neoliberalism (usually taken to be an elite response to the political and economic crises of 1973-74). Literary and political magazines alike, from Hound and Horn and the Kenyon Review to Dissent and the New Left Review, have long been dominated by academics: partly because they could afford to work for free, and partly because they cared enough about American intellectual life to start and contribute to such unprofitable ventures. Nair insists that “we have to consider how workplaces operate differently under neoliberalism, especially in the world of publishing which survives in print and online formats.” This may be true, but it would be at least as useful, I suggest, to produce a history of the professional relations between academics and journalists, going as far back as the eighteenth century, with particular attention to these questions of unpaid labor and “moonlighting.”

Pushing the origin point of Nair’s critique further back into the past doesn’t invalidate it, of course. It does, however, help to temper some of her harsher pronouncements about today’s intellectual publishing scene. “Paying for writers is no guarantee of quality,” she acknowledges, before taking a passing pot shot at Kristof, but still holds that “the long-term effects” of allowing writers to go un- or underpaid

are deleterious and many. We’re losing a sense of what it really means to develop and sustain an intellectual culture. If you can’t pay for writing, you’re not going to get work that actually interrogates the status quo and will only end up rehashing the same opinions over and over again.

This, in my view, has it almost backwards. The vitality of small publications like Jacobin (and The Rumpus, and The New Inquiry, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and n+1, and Avidly) is closely related to the ways they have managed to evade or short-circuit the established journalistic market. These venues allow people to write and publish pieces (usually for little to no money, it’s true) that they would not otherwise be able to publish, either because they would be assigned to more established, credentialed writers or because no established publication would accept them at all. While Nair looks at the low pay rates of these publications and sees only exploitation, she neglects to point out that such rates allow editors to take risks that they otherwise wouldn’t, and to publish work that goes against the grain. This is something that Nair, a past contributor to sites like In These Times and The Awl, must know, but that she chooses to downplay for the sake of her argument. Without these outlets, these radical or unconventional pieces simply wouldn’t be written, or else they would remain on personal blogs with much smaller and more stratified audiences.

Dissent-1954q1Nor will Nair’s hard-and-fast separation between writers on one side and editors and publishers on the other stand up to empirical scrutiny. Editors at these magazines are rarely paid commensurately to their work either (many aren’t paid at all), and few publishers have figured out a way to extract real profits from the labor they facilitate. (A company like the Huffington Post, which does indeed make a profit off unpaid labor, is an exception to the rule.) This may be cold comfort to struggling freelancers, but from an economic perspective the situation is less one of exploitation from above than it is of mutual unsustainability.

Then, too, there are political problems. Nair identifies as a person of the left — “the bastard child of queer theory and deconstruction,” according to her website bio — and in her post she frequently uses the language of Marxism, often somewhat loosely. I do think her position is more or less consistent with a certain socialism, but not with the kind of radical public sphere she seems to want to promote. Absent communal ownership of the means of production, a strictly socialist position, like a strictly capitalist one, presupposes the market as the arbiter of value; it’s just that it’s a regulated market, not a free one. Socialists think that if we acquiesce to one of capitalism’s basic premises — that everything, including labor, can be bought and sold — then we can avoid the worst consequences of one of its other premises: that the chessboard can be overturned at any time by a new strategy or a new technology, and that there’s no such thing as “fixed” and “fair” when it comes to prices and values. There is, then, certainly a feasible socialist way of organizing the publishing world in order to resolve the problems Nair raises. It involves setting clear, enforceable standards for what different kinds of writing and other literary labor are worth, and sticking to them. This kind of roughly socialist solution seems to be what Nair is advocating, and it’s a perfectly respectable, if impractical and unlikely, thing to desire.

But this solution would not produce the sort of public sphere Nair wants (and that — cards on table — I want, too). Contrary to her rhetoric, which suggests that a critical utopia is just a collective action away, I’m not sure there’s a truly radical solution so readily at hand; that is, a solution that both ensures fairness and promotes the kind of radical public discourse Nair values. If part of the left’s goal is to combat something called “neoliberalism” by upsetting or destroying all current relations of production, thus hastening a revolution followed by full communism, then insisting that writers refuse to write for a “pay rate [not] starting in the hundreds” is extremely wrongheaded. How exactly does Nair think radical ideas are going to get into circulation if everyone holds out for top dollar before expressing them?

Indeed, it seems to me that Nair’s jabs at Jacobin and the like reflect a longstanding tension between the socialist left and the artistic/intellectual avant-garde. The little magazine was, in its time, an avant-garde form, as contemporary web publications are in ours, and the avant-garde has never been conspicuous for its equality. The hard truth for socialists committed to fair pay is that part of what makes these publications avant-garde is also what makes it difficult for them to pay adequately: their marginality to the normal market relations and contracting practices of the publishing world. For better and worse, the form of the little magazine/website is inextricably linked with the history of capitalism, which is also driven by a logic of “innovation” and “disruption.” (I don’t mean, of course, that little magazines can’t or shouldn’t oppose capitalism; only that their day-to-day business operations are unlikely to be fully consistent with their ideology, in the absence of extensive funding from the capitalist private sector or, I suppose, the state.) To the extent that leftist intellectuals have participated in avant-garde projects, they have made a compromise. It’s a little late to regret this, especially if that attitude involves impugning the motives of people who are inspired by different ideals than Nair’s.

I’ve been trying to avoid the “L” words here, for fear of Yasmin’s silver hammer coming down upon my head. But actually, screw it: Labors of love will always exist, and that is a good thing; you can’t simply bracket out what people care about in the name of a more just economic arrangement. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t agitate to get paid for those labors. Nair is right that today’s little magazines don’t pay nearly enough, even if she’s largely wrong about why, and that prestige is a currency that only certain writers can afford to accept. I agree that there ought to be more public pressure on these nascent journalistic institutions to pay better, and more transparency from the magazines themselves about their business practices. (The website Who Pays Writers?, started in 2013 by Manjula Martin, is an excellent practical step in this direction.) What we shouldn’t do is demonize writers, editors, and publishers for making compromises in the service of ideals other than a perfectly regulated labor market. The truth is, people make compromises for what they love — as do institutions — and to expect anything else is a fantasy of orthodoxy.

Evan Kindley: Saying “alas” to less and less.

–Read more on Avidly about writing and not-writing for free: “Why I Write for Free” by Stephanie Lucianovic and “Why I Don’t Write for Free” by Lauren W.



  1. March 17, 2014 @ 1:31 pm Mr. Sidetable

    Nair’s piece seems to presume a right for people to earn a living by their writing if that’s the profession they choose–circumstances that have *never* applied widely in American print culture. The late-C20 era of large-circulation glossy magazines–the only publications that ever regularly paid freelance writers anything like a living wage–was entirely anomalous.

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  2. March 17, 2014 @ 3:33 pm Andrea Kaston Tange

    “Literary and political magazines alike, from Hound and Horn and the Kenyon Review to Dissent and the New Left Review, have long been dominated by academics: partly because they could afford to work for free, and partly because they cared enough about American intellectual life to start and contribute to such unprofitable ventures.” But surely one must acknowledge that many academics who can “afford to work for free” are not actually doing so: they have university jobs that pay them salaries, and part of the job description is that they write and publish. So, while the journals/magazines/online newspapers are not paying them, SOMEONE is, for a job that is partly described as a writing and research position. Certainly, it would be far better if freelance writers were paid commensurate to their work. (Also many academics put in 12-month work years for 9-month pay contracts.) These problems notwithstanding, it would be more convincing if the argument compared the labor market on the basis of who is doing the paying, rather than assuming all academics are somehow wealthy elites who don’t need to earn money for their labor.

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  3. March 18, 2014 @ 1:07 pm Joe Clement

    What do you think of community media projects? I volunteer with a community radio-station in Portland, Oregon: 90.7FM KBOO. It exists largely on the basis of listener contributions and no large or government grants. But there is a “KBOO Foundation” entity underneath it all. The station is largely ran by 500 volunteers and a small paid staff exist to coordinate and support these activities. We elect our board, are fiercely democratic in our day-to-day relations, and while not perfect we’ve been around for 45 years. “Membership Drive” is always a weird time, because it’s when we take over about third of the day time programming to pitch and sell KBOO. I don’t like it and make an effort to short-circuit the crypto-commercial consciousness these times engender. I work on a “public affairs” program, The Old Mole Variety Hour, that produces a lot of radical anti-capitalist, socialist, anarcho-syndicalist feminist, anti-racist interviews, reviews, commentary, stories and analysis.

    Are KBOO programmers scabbing on Public Radio stations like OPB? Probably not, Nair might say, since our radio station is non-commercial. Are magazines like Jacobin commercial entities like Huffington Post? Could they adopt more non-commercial practices? What does it mean to have the time to write? Does it mean you’re well off or that you’re surviving and possibly on only a part-time job?

    Nair’s actually been on our program more than a few times, but usually to talk about queer or other feminist issues as they intersect with class and racial considerations. I still respect her, but have some objections to the broad strokes she writes about the political economy of writing work here.

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  4. March 18, 2014 @ 4:43 pm Jon Jermey

    People who begin with the apparently reasonable claim that authors should be paid for their work invariably move on sooner or later to the unreasonable claim that this should be made to occur by suppressing the work of those who don’t — because it’s not going to happen any other way. Apart from the free speech implications, this has serious repercussions on those of us who want to read what has been written in the past — whether it was paid for or not — and moved out of copyright or been made available for free as it lost its topicality. Luckily it’s not going to happen this way either. The genie is out of the bottle.

    Nair’s socialist credentials are apparent from her failure to understand the concept of scarcity. When there is a desperate shortage of well-written articles on, say, socialism for people to read, they will command a high price. When there are more well-written articles on socialism available for free than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime, new ones are unnecessary and without value. And we are approaching that position very rapidly.

    Write for money in the Internet age? One might as well set up a seawater shop at the beach.

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  5. March 19, 2014 @ 10:35 am John Mountfort

    I share Nair’s opinion when it comes to organizations. The attitudes toward pay that Nair derides are commonplace throughout the non-profit community. The reality that people are either exploited or unexploitable due to their circumstances in the non-profit world, and that the management of many non-profits behaves exactly like an aristocracy is something the Left needs to stop BSing itself about. Whatever is begged-for is likely coming out of a surplus, friends :) So the question becomes whether the organization’s impact justifies its elitism and detrimental effect on the labor market (after all, one cannot be in favor of a minimum wage, but only for economic organizations that we don’t think are nice).

    Blogs and suchlike are, however, personal outlets. They are seldom economic organizations. One cannot exploit oneself (unless one wants to echo right-wing rhetoric about the unionization of fast-food employment, for example). And it is unreasonable to demand that people refrain from expressing themselves because it imposes externalities in the wider economy.

    Perhaps “little” magazines should be required to meet the higher standard set for organizations. They set a bad example: be a non-profit and you can lower your labor costs with an untroubled conscience!

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